A Short Story by Aaron Young

"Not the smartest thing I've ever done," he thought. Jonathan Ceran looked around at his predicament. His left leg was clearly broken as evidenced by the excruciating pain and the fact that his tibia was sticking out the side of his calf. Blood poured from the wound only to join the raging creek and find its way downstream to who-knows-where. There were two options from this point: give up and die, or fight for his life. People can say what they want about his decision making skills, but no one would ever doubt his will to live.

The first order of business was to stop the bleeding. If he lost too much blood, nothing else mattered. He gingerly took off his $12.99 Walmart backpack, careful not to move his fractured leg. Near the bottom of the pack, beneath the granola bars, Gatorade, camera, and about 4 pounds worth of twigs and pine needles, he found the survival kit. It wasn't much, but it was all he had. "This is the part that's going to hurt," he said aloud. Taking a few deep breaths to steady himself, he jammed the bone back into the hole as best as he could. The walls of the canyon echoed with his scream of agony. If there was anyone around, they surely would've heard his cry. But there was no one within earshot. As a matter of fact, the closest living person was at that point, 2.36 miles away, listening to Dwight Yoakam's "Heart That You Own" while driving an 86 Ford F-250 down Forest Service Road 33 en route to the Cougar Divide Trailhead. Not that any of that mattered to Ceran.
                The pain at that moment was the most intense sensation, good or bad, that he had ever felt in his life. He turned his head to the side and vomited into the creek. The pale brown mixed with the dark red blood that still dumped out of his leg and formed a strange brownish-red color that almost perfectly matched the color of the young moss on the rocks of the creek. As the pain began to subside from hellish torment to unbelievable agony, he threaded a needle and began to sew the gash shut the best as he could. It wasn't easy. His hands shivered uncontrollably from shock, or the cold of the canyon, or more likely a combination of the two. He ran out of thread before he got all the way across the wound so he scrounged through the pack for a tube of super glue that he used to fix the frequently broken tripods he bought. He emptied the entire contents into the wound and held the skin closed for what seemed like eternity to allow the glue to work its magic. The patch job wasn't pretty but it would have to do. He slowly began to wrap an ACE bandage around the shattered leg. When the wrap was gone, he removed the long sleeved t-shirt that he always kept in the backpack: "bright yellow so he could easily be seen by anyone wandering the woods with a gun and a few beers in them". At least that was the joke he always told anyone who asked about it. How he would love to have someone around to ask him that now.
                It was by no means perfect, but he was fairly convinced, well maybe 10% convinced anyway, that the wrap would stop the bleeding. He dry swallowed eight Advil and laid his head against a rock while the pain rocked his body. In forty-seven seconds, Jonathan Ceran was asleep.

Jonathan slowly made his way out of sleep. He realized he was wet and his first thought was that he had for some reason peed the bed. As his eyes opened it all came flooding back to him. Sitting on a mossy rock, with the glacial-fed creek rushing passed, he had somehow fallen asleep. How in the world could that happen?
He took another minute to work things out in his head, which didn't seem to be working correctly. How long had he been asleep? A quick look at his watch told him: just over three hours. He unwrapped the shirt from his leg. The bandage was saturated with blood but the wound had stopped bleeding; at least for the time being. That was good. The concern now was getting out of here. No one would be coming for him any time soon so it would be his job to get out of this canyon by himself.
                He would need to splint his leg before any type of movement would be remotely possible. The canyon had an abundance of wood jammed into any opening in the rocks. Cautiously moving about on the rocks on which he sat, he was able to find two branches that were roughly the correct length. The water of the creek had removed the bark, creating a smooth surface on the branches, but they would work. He was sure of it.
                Five minutes later, Jonathan had used his long sleeved t-shirt, no longer yellow but an odd maroon color, and the branches to construct a rugged but surprisingly efficient splint. He found another branch that would have to serve as a crutch. It was by no means perfect but these were desperate times. He took a quick look at his watch: 5:40 PM. He had about 3 hours of daylight left. If he was still in this canyon by dusk, he was dead.
                There was no way to climb back up the canyon wall in his current condition so he would have to make his way downstream towards the mouth of the canyon. The first steps were taken slowly, and very carefully, but he soon gained confidence in his makeshift crutch. It took him nearly two hours to travel the 500' downstream to where he could climb out of the creek bed and into the woods. He collapsed, leaning against the trunk of a massive cedar tree, and rested.
                As darkness began to envelope the thousand year old forest around him, he began to search for a place to spend the night. He found a small flat area and began to clear a small area for a fire pit. By 8:30, as the first stars began to peak out from behind the clouds, he had a fire blazing with enough wood to last for the night. As his clothes dried, he began to gain confidence. The hardest part of his journey was over. He WOULD survive. He had to. He laid his head against the soft earth and listened to the crackling of the fire, the distant howl of the coyotes, and the chirps and croaks of the ancient forest as he slowly fell asleep.

                Sequoia Ceran checked the clock for the tenth time in an hour.   It wasn’t uncommon for Jonathan to be a little late from one of his little adventures but he’d never been this late.   Her brain was telling her there were a million reasons he could be late but her heart knew the truth.  Something was wrong.  When the clock hit 1:30 in the morning she called the police who informed her that there was nothing they could do until he’d been missing 24 hours.  She sat on the couch and tried to maintain a positive attitude.  He would come home; he always came home.  Just before four, she fell asleep on the couch, waiting for Jonathan to come home.  If he wasn’t there in the morning, she would go out looking.

                Jonathan awoke with a start to the sound of a breaking branch.   He looked around the small clearing where he slept for the cause of the noise but saw nothing.  The early morning sun burst through the forest in an alternating band of sun and shadow.  If he was in a better situation he would have found it breathtaking.  The leg throbbed with an unbelievable pain.  As he slowing unwrapped the wound, he could feel the heat coming off it.  The leg glowed a bright red.  In addition to the broken bone, a massive infection was now ravaging his left limb.  He had to make it back to the car today!  He checked the GPS:   two miles to the car as the crow flies.   In this terrain, on two healthy legs, that could take up to four hours.  He slowly climbed to his feet and began the long march towards the car.

                After getting the grand total of four hours of sleep, Sequoia woke up and immediately prepared to go out looking.  She knew the general area where Jonathan had gone but wasn’t sure exactly what his destination was.  She would look for his car and go from there but she wouldn’t do it alone.  The phone rang four times before he answered.

“Hello,” came the voice on the other end.

                “Scott.  It’s Sequoia.   I need your help.”

                “What’s wrong?” he asked.

                “Jonathan didn’t come home last night,” she answered.   “I’m going to go out to look for him.  Will you go with me?”

                “Of course.  Pick me up in 20 minutes.  I’ll be ready.”

                She hung up the phone and prepared for a long day.  Hopefully they wouldn’t be too late.

                Jonathan Ceran’s progress through the woods was slow; very slow.   While the terrain was mostly flat, there were numerous obstacles that could trip anyone up, even when healthy.  Essentially walking on one leg, he found himself spending as much time getting back up from falls as he did actually moving forward. 

He stopped for lunch some time in the early afternoon and ate his last granola bar and a few handfuls of not-quite-ripe blueberries.  The battery on the GPS had died earlier that morning but he estimated that he had traveled roughly half the distance back to the road.  Despite the problems, he was fairly confident he would reach the road by dark.  He was half way there in four hours with eight hours of daylight left.  No problem.  The pain in his leg seemed to be lessening, though he wasn’t sure if that was indeed the case or if he was just getting used to it.  He pulled out the topographic map and took a look at it.  He probably had the map memorized by now, but looking at the map gave him a few extra minutes of rest before the arduous journey would continue.  As long as he stayed on his current course and didn’t change elevation he would be assured to hit the road.

As he packed everything back into its place in the pack he heard something fall but he could see nothing.  All morning he had fought the feeling that someone or something was following him.  Just paranoia he assured himself.

Sequoia and Scott began their search on the eastern end of the Mount Baker Highway.   Based on where Jonathan had been heading, they narrowed their search down to a dozen pothole-filled, dusty forest service roads.  The plan was to start in the east and proceed west.  If they found his car they would call in the cavalry.

Honestly, Scott was probably the worst person to join her in this search.   Several years ago, Jonathan found out about an affair Sequoia was having with his then best friend.  She finally convinced him that the affair was over but the two had secretly been seeing each other the whole time.  Regardless of the history, she had nowhere else to turn and Scott was a strong and highly intelligent man who refused to give up on a project until it was complete.  The same traits that originally drew her to him were the same traits that would help Scott find her husband.  She would deal with the repercussions later.

Eight hours, and nine dirt roads into the search, Sequoia was beginning to give up hope.  Only a few hours of daylight remained and they were no closer to finding Jonathan.  They had to find him tonight.

Jonathan woke up confused.  He had no idea how long he had been out and couldn’t remember falling asleep.  The sun was beginning to set and he hadn’t made the road yet.  He got to his feet and began to continue on his previous route.   Why had he fallen asleep?  How far was he from the road?  He traveled as fast as he could; desperation overcoming any sense of safety he had.  A sound on his right startled him and he snapped his head in that direction looking for the source.  The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and then he saw it.   Something was watching him from behind a tree.   The fading light made it difficult to make out any features but there was something there.  He forgot about the pain and started to run, as well as he could, in the direction of the road.

Scott and Sequoia had one road left to drive.  If they could not find Jonathan’s car here, they would have to abandon the search.  Dusk had settled firmly in as Scott dodged potholes as he pushed the oversized pick-up along the forest service road as quickly as he dared.  Sequoia cried quietly in the seat beside him.

“We’ll stay at my house tonight,” Scott informed her.  “It’s closer and we can get an early start in the morning.”

“We’re never going to find him,” Sequoia said between sobs.

“We’ll find him.  We can call the sheriff when we get home and they’ll start searching as well.  Don’t worry, we’ll find him.”

Blind panic had set in.  Jonathan wasn’t thinking clearly; he wasn’t thinking at all.  Branches whipped him in the face as he pushed his way through the ever darkening forest.   His mind wasn’t working properly but he knew one thing with absolute certainty:  he was going to die.  He glanced back over his shoulder as he hurried along.  His legs hit something solid and he fell forward, face first into a pile of branches, tearing his left cheek open in the process.  He wiped his face and got back to his feet when his redemption appeared ahead of him.  Through the trees in front of him and slightly to the right, he saw a pair of bouncing headlights.  He raced forward again for another ten feet before tripping and falling again so he began to crawl.  He could just make out the road in front of him only thirty feet away.  He crawled as rapidly as he could towards the road, hope beginning to take root in his heart.  The sound behind him caught him off guard.  Whatever it was, it was racing towards him, trying to stop him from reaching the road.

Scott looked over at Sequoia and wiped the tears from her cheek.  It killed him to see the woman he loved in such distress.   As much as he loved her, he only wanted her to be happy and would do whatever it took to make that happen.

Suddenly Sequoia screamed and pointed.  “Watch out!”

Scott’s head snapped forward to see a deer cross the road.  It was followed by another creature crawling slowly on all fours.   They were going to hit it.  Scott hit the brakes in a futile attempt to stop.  The bumper hit the creature at 40 MPH.  Sequoia screamed as the driver’s side tires ran over the animal.  The truck stopped twenty feet past the body and Scott was out of the door immediately.  As he reached the now dead body, a chill swept through his body.  The search was over.  They had found Jonathan.